Tips to help you get the most out of therapy

October 4, 2022 in Uncategorized  •  By Miles Varn, MD

If you’re thinking about starting therapy or are already seeing a mental health provider, there are steps you can take to help you get the greatest benefit from your therapy sessions. If you haven’t started therapy yet, the first step is to look for a provider who has experience treating the issue you face, whether that’s depression, anxiety, PTSD, relationship issues, ADHD, an eating disorder, or alcohol or substance use disorder.

You can ask your primary care provider for recommendations or work with a health advisor to connect with an experienced provider. It can be helpful to meet with a few providers for a consultation to see if their approach and personality are a good fit for you before you commit to ongoing therapy.

If you’re experiencing a mental health crisis that could put you at risk of harming yourself or others, seek immediate treatment by calling 988 (the national suicide and crisis lifeline), 911, or going to the emergency room.

Once you’ve chosen a mental health provider, these steps can help you get the most out of your time with your therapist:

  • Think about what you hope to get out of therapy. Before your first appointment, write a list of the mental health issues you’re living with so you can describe the situation to your therapist during your first meeting. If there’s more than one issue, which is the one you’d like to focus on first? If you’ve tried treatment before, let the provider know what you’ve tried and what has and hasn’t worked for you and why. Also think about what your goals for therapy are. Do you want to learn coping skills for panic attacks? Are there issues between you and your partner or a family member that you’d like to address? Do you want help with an alcohol or substance use disorder? Getting your thoughts and goals organized and outlined before your first appointment can help your provider build a tailored treatment plan.
  • Choose an appointment time that works for you. Make sure you won’t be rushing to get to your appointment and will have five minutes or so before the appointment starts to settle and get mentally focused for your session. If you’re not a morning person, for example, schedule your appointments for later in the day when you can be more fully present. Or if you tend to feel emotional or upset after therapy sessions, schedule them when you have some time to recover before diving back into work or family commitments.
  • Be an active participant. Come to your appointment knowing what you’d like to focus on during that session. Ask questions and ask for clarification if you’re not completely clear on what your provider is saying or recommending. Your therapist’s office is a safe space, so be completely honest and open with your provider. For example, if you’re skipping your medication because of side effects, let your provider know and suggest alternatives. Or if there’s an experience you feel embarrassed or worried about sharing, remember you can share these things with your therapist without being judged.
  • Practice what you learn between sessions. Some providers give “homework” to patients, for example, practicing deep breathing to circumvent a panic attack. Even if your provider doesn’t make a specific suggestion about what you can work on, try to put the things you learn into action between sessions. And report back to your provider about how the strategy worked or did not work so you can hone it together. It can also be helpful to keep a journal between sessions, writing down how you’re feeling, what’s triggering negative feelings or behaviors during the week, and how you’ve used the skills you’re learning in therapy. You can share what’s in your journal with your provider or just use it to track your progress over time.
  • Don’t rush the process. Mental wellness takes time to achieve. Be patient, both with yourself and with the process of therapy, and invest the time and effort needed to move towards your goals. However, if you feel stuck for a significant period of time or you don’t have a positive relationship with your provider, talk to your provider. If that doesn’t help, it may be time to find a new provider.